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Shin Bet arrests Hamas cell in Hebron planning attacks on Israel
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s Shin Bet security agency arrested 11 members of a Hamas cell in Hebron that was planning terrorist attacks on Israel.

The arrests, in a joint operation with the Israel Defense Forces, took place last month, the Shin Bet announced Monday in a statement.

Under questioning, the suspects admitted that they had planned attacks in Jerusalem and Hebron, including suicide bombings. One on the Tel Rumeida settlement near Hebron in early December targeted Israeli soldiers.

The suspects turned over explosives and two weapons that they planned to use in the attacks, according to the Shin Bet.

“The cell’s activities show the real threat of Hamas in Hebron, in particular from military operatives who had been detained in the past and who had returned to the cycle of terror,” the Shin Bet said in its statement.

The Shin Bet has requested that the men be held until their trials in military court.

Peace Now: New housing starts in West Bank rose by 40% in ’14
JERUSALEM (JTA) — The number of new housing starts in Jewish settlements in the West Bank rose by 40 percent last year, the activist group Peace Now said.

Some 68 percent of the new construction is in settlements that are outside the blocs Israel likely will keep in any future peace deal, Peace Now said in its report issued Monday.

The group’s figures are higher than the estimates from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, which according to Peace Now does not include illegal construction and relies on reports from local authorities. The Israeli government as of Tuesday evening had not commented on the Peace Now report.

According to Peace Now, the 2014 construction in the settlements included 3,100 residential units, including 2,671 permanent structures. Some 287 of the units, or 9 percent, were built in illegal settlement outposts, the group wrote.

In addition, 165 public buildings were erected, such as kindergartens, educational institutions and synagogues, and 92 industrial and agricultural structures were built.

Tenders for 4,485 residential units were published in 2014, up from up from 3,710 in 2013 and 1,774 in 2010.

In addition to those tenders, on Jan. 30, tenders for another 450 units in the West Bank were issued, Peace Now said. Those units had been proposed in tenders but were not sold and were never built.

“Tender publication (some repeated tenders) eventually halted the (Israeli-Palestinian peace) negotiations and led Secretary of State John Kerry to withdraw his efforts,” the report said.

Palestinian, 19, killed in refugee camp clashes with IDF
JERUSALEM (JTA) — A Palestinian teenager was shot and killed during clashes with Israeli troops at a refugee camp near Bethlehem.

Jihad Shehada al-Jaafari, 19, was shot early Wednesday morning when Israeli soldiers opened fire in the Deheishe camp after Palestinian rioters had thrown rocks and firebombs at the soldiers, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported. One Israeli soldier was injured.

“After trying in vain to disperse the crowd of attackers, our forces felt in danger and opened fire at a leader of the rioters, who was hit,” an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman told reporters.

Jaafari, who was struck in the shoulder while watching the disturbances from his roof, according to Maan, died of internal bleeding. Israeli troops prevented rescue services from reaching him for some time, according to Palestinian sources.

Shas spiritual leader: ‘Hatikvah’ a ‘stupid song’
JERUSALEM (JTA) — The spiritual leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party said at a party convention that “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, “is a stupid song.”

Rabbi Shlomo Cohen, head of the Council of Torah Sages of the Shas Party, made the comments Sunday at a party convention, the Israeli news website Walla reported. Walla also put a recording of the statement on its website.

Cohen told the convention that in 1955, at the ceremony appointing Yitzhak Nissim as Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, those gathered stood and began singing “Hatikvah.” Cohen said he did not stand for the anthem, but that his popular predecessor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, did. Cohen said he asked Yosef why he stood, and Yosef replied that he said the Aleinu, a Jewish prayer recited while standing.

“A real man. Why did he say Aleinu? He didn’t want this stupid song to influence him,” Cohen said.

Cohen has served on the Council of Torah Sages since the founding of Shas in 1984.

In response to the airing of the video clip, Shas said, “No one will teach the wise man Shalom Cohen, who grew up all his days in Jerusalem, what Zionism is and what his relationship is to the Land of Israel. It is his right and duty to think that the sources of the Torah in Israel are 10 times more important than a poem composed only in the last decades.”

Shmira Imber, daughter of Naftali Herz Imber, the composer of “Hatikvah,” responded to Cohen’s remarks in an interview with Walla.

“It is stupid to say that,” she said. “I am sorry that the spiritual leader of Shas does not walk in the way of Rav Ovadia, his teacher and rabbi.”

Israel briefly cuts Nablus, Jenin electricity
(JTA) — Israel’s state-owned electric company temporarily cut electrical power to two Palestinian cities to protest the Palestinian government’s failure to pay.

The Israel Electric Corp., saying it was owed approximately $500 million, reduced power in Nablus and Jenin for 45 minutes on Monday, Reuters reported.

Nablus Mayor Ghassan Al-Shaka called the power cut “collective punishment,” according to Reuters.

Palestinian officials in Nablus told the French news agency AFP that thousands of homes were affected and denied that the government owed more than $12.5 million.

Iran reports finding, returning stolen Shiraz Torah
(JTA) — A stolen Torah scroll uncovered by an Iranian volunteer militia was returned to the Shiraz Jewish community, the Fars News Agency reported.

Members of the Basij located the ancient scroll taken from a Shiraz synagogue. The scroll was returned to the community at a ceremony on Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution’s victory, according to Fars, which has ties to the government.

Fars reported that Siamak Mareh Sedq, the representative of the Iranian Jewish community at the parliament, said in a letter that the move demonstrated the respect that the Islamic establishment has for all faiths.

Jerusalem mayor, bodyguard subdue Palestinian attacker
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and his security guard apprehended a Palestinian teen who stabbed a haredi Orthodox man near City Hall.

Barkat was on his way to City Hall for a meeting on Sunday evening when he saw the attack taking place near Safra Square in central Jerusalem, according to reports.

The victim, reportedly in his 20s, was stabbed in the stomach and taken to a Jerusalem hospital for treatment. He is in moderate condition.

The alleged attacker, 18, a resident of Ramallah who was residing illegally in Jerusalem, was taken in for questioning by police.

Netanyahu, citing IAEA report, incredulous that Iran nuke talks are advancing
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “astonishing” that nuclear talks with Iran are proceeding despite a report saying that Iran is hiding military components of its nuclear program.

On Sunday, Netanyahu at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting also reiterated his intention to travel to the United States next week to deliver an address on the Iran talks to Congress that has stirred controversy.

The U.N. atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a report released Thursday said that Iran is limiting its testing of its uranium refinement capacities, yet failing to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors, by hiding “nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”

Talks between Iran and the world powers resumed Sunday in Geneva.

“It is astonishing that even after the recent IAEA report determined that Iran is continuing to hide the military components of its nuclear program, the nuclear talks with it are proceeding,” Netanyahu said. “Not only are they continuing, there is an increased effort to reach a nuclear agreement in the coming days and weeks.”

The target date for the outline of an agreement, which Netanyahu said will “threaten [Israel’s] existence,” is March 24, with a signed agreement by June 30.

“The agreement that is being formulated between Iran and the major powers is dangerous for Israel, and therefore I will go to the U.S. next week in order to explain to the American Congress, which could influence the fate of the agreement, why this agreement is dangerous for Israel, the region and the entire world,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet.

Israel to buy 14 more stealth fighter jets from U.S.
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel signed a contract to purchase 14 more F-35 stealth fighter jets from the United States.

The agreement was signed over the weekend for the purchase of the jets manufactured by Lockheed Martin Corp. The planes will cost about $3 billion, Israel’s Defense Ministry said.

Israel’s Cabinet approved the purchase in November. Israel has an option to purchase up to 17 more of the planes; it purchased 19 of the F-35s in 2010.

Israel is scheduled to take delivery of the first two F-35s at the end of 2016. All of the planes should be delivered by 2021.

IAEA: Iran limiting but also hiding nuclear activities
(JTA) — Iran is limiting its testing of its uranium refinement capacities yet failing to cooperate with international nuclear inspectors, the U.N. atomic watchdog said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency made the assertions in a report released Feb. 19, the Deutche Welle newspaper reported.

“The agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear-related activities involving military-related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” the IAEA report said.

While failing to cooperate with inspectors, Iran has refrained from expanding tests of more efficient models of a machine used to refine uranium, complying with a nuclear agreement with six world powers, Reuters reported.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the IAEA’s report proved Tehran is hiding its nuclear weapons ambitions.

The IAEA “once again notes that Iran is refusing to reveal to the world its preparations for the production of  nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Iran insists on hiding this from the international community at a time when the major powers are continuing to try and allow Iran to produce the core of such weapons, enriched uranium. These go do not go together.”

The IAEA document nonetheless is allaying concerns that Iran might be violating the accord reached in 2013 by Iran and representatives of the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia. That agreement stipulated that Tehran could continue but not ramp up its research and development of nuclear capabilities, according Reuters.

Israel has accused Iran of using the talks to stall for time while furthering its plans to build nuclear weapons; Tehran has denied this.

The talks between the powers are design to find an agreed-upon formula that would prevent Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capabilities while allowing it to retain some of its nuclear program. Netanyahu has warned against a bad deal that would allow Iran to become a threshold nuclear state.

Talks resumed Sunday in Geneva between Iran and the world powers.

Israeli chief rabbi says he won’t validate municipal rabbis’ conversions
(JTA) — Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi said he will ignore a government directive recognizing conversions performed by municipal rabbis.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef vowed to block the conversions in remarks that were captured on tape and published Feb. 18 by Yosef said he would withhold his signature, which is required to complete the conversion process.

“They went ahead and made a law that municipal rabbis can perform conversions and then went over my head,” Yosef said.

“The chief rabbi of Jerusalem can perform conversions, the chief rabbi of Shoham can perform conversions – they already converted a few people in Arad,” he said. “The chief rabbi has the authority to stop this. I gave an order to the head of the [Chief Rabbinate’s] Conversions Department that all the conversions they are now performing, I won’t sign them, I won’t approve, I won’t sign something that is contrary to halachah” — Jewish religious law.

Last November, the government adopted legislation that ended the monopoly on conversions held by the Chief Rabbinate’s Conversions Department.

The chief rabbis, as well as municipal rabbis, are public servants in Israel.

Following the recording’s release, Elazar Stern, an Orthodox member of the Knesset who has led attempts to reform the conversion process, called on Yosef to resign.

“The chief rabbi is forgetting that decisions made by the Israeli Knesset are his sole source of authority,” Stern, a lawmaker for the Yesh Atid party, was quoted as saying on the news site “If he is unwilling or unable for some reason to follow the state’s laws and the resolutions of its government, than he has only one choice: Resign.”

New State Dept. travel warning for Israel cites deaths of U.S. citizens
(JTA) — A new U.S. State Department travel warning for Israel cites recent injuries to and deaths of U.S. citizens.

The warning, updated Feb. 18 on the department’s website, states, “A rise in political tensions and violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank has resulted in injuries to and deaths of U.S. citizens.”

“We have no indication that U.S. citizens have been specifically targeted based on their nationality, however U.S. citizens have been directly affected. Six U.S. citizen residents of Israel and the West Bank were killed and others injured in multiple attacks in 2014,” according to the warning.

Among the U.S. citizens killed in recent months were Naftali Fraenkel, one of three teens kidnapped and killed by Palestinian terrorists in June; Chaya Zissel Braun, a 3-month-old killed in October when a Palestinian driver plowed into a crowd at a light rail station on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem; and three rabbis killed in the terror attack in November on a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

Among the injured were Tariq Abu Khdeir, a Muslim teenager beaten by Israeli border police in July following the funeral of his cousin who was burned to death by Jewish extremists, and Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a Temple Mount activist who survived an assassination attempt in Jerusalem.

The warning recommends that U.S. citizens stay away from all demonstrations and reminds them that there is potential for military conflict between Hamas and Israel.

The warning reiterates that “U.S. government employees are prohibited from using public buses throughout Israel and the West Bank.”

The warning adds, however, “In view of the ongoing security situation, the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority make considerable efforts to police major tourist attractions and ensure security in areas where foreigners frequently travel. Although threat mitigation efforts by authorities are not 100 percent effective, hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Israel and the West Bank each year for study, tourism, and business.”

Gaza hackers use porn in cyber attack on Israeli institutions
(JTA) — A group of hackers from Gaza used pornographic videos in a wide-scale cyber attack on several Israeli institutions and individuals.

A report titled Operation Arid Viper: Bypassing the Iron Dome released Feb. 16 by the cyber security company Trend Micro detailed the hacking campaign carried out by the tech workers from Gaza. The report called the strategy of using pornographic videos “distinct” and “previously unseen.”

The hackers sent individuals a “phishing” email with a “pornographic movie” meant to embarrass targets into ignoring the cyber infiltration, the report said.

Trend Micro described the process through an actual example:

“[A]n employee in an Israeli government receives and opens a highly targeted phishing email. A pornographic movie starts to play on his screen, which he hurriedly closes before any of his colleagues notice. … Minutes later, an attacker from somewhere in the Gaza Strip in Palestine gets notified that a new victim’s system has been successfully infected.”

According to Trend Micro, Operation Arid Viper targeted a government office, transportation service providers, a military organization and an academic institution in Israel, as well as an academic institution in Kuwait and several unidentified Israeli individuals.

Trend Micro identified three men with “some apparent connection” to Operation Arid Viper: Khalid Samra, Ahmed Jmal and Mahmoud Hashem. One of the reasons for their success, the report said, was that they launched their attacks from outside Gaza. The attacks originated in Germany, which is not on an Israeli Internet service provider “ban list.”

The report followed a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the National Cyber Bureau, Israel’s cyber protection agency, will be “upgraded” to the National Cyber Authority. As an authority, the organization will receive more funding and be given more influence over public policy, The Times of Israel reported.

Israeli Supreme Court allows Zoabi, Marzel to run in elections
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s Supreme Court overturned a government committee’s decision to disqualify Arab-Israeli lawmaker Hanin Zoabi and far-right Jewish activist Baruch Marzel from running in the March 17 elections.

In an 8-1 vote, the court ruled Feb. 18 that the candidates could run. The decision was announced without reason.

Last week, the Central Elections Committee voted 27-6 to ban Zoabi, a Knesset member from the Arab-Israeli Balad party since 2009. The vote against Marzel, of the Yachad party, was 17-16.

Zoabi and Marzel previously have been banned from running in elections, most recently Zoabi in January 2013. The Supreme Court overturned those decisions.

Zoabi, who participated in the 2010 flotilla sail to Gaza to bust Israel’s blockade organized by the Islamic IHH group in Turkey, has been censured for anti-Israel statements. Most recently she was suspended from the Knesset for statements she made encouraging Palestinian “popular resistance” and saying that the kidnappers of three Israeli teens, who later were murdered, were not terrorists.

Marzel, who headed the outlawed Kach movement after the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, has previously run for Knesset.

Western Wall rabbi accuses Waqf of incitement over restrooms expansion
JERUSALEM (JTA) — The rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, condemned as “incitement” attempts by the Muslim Waqf to politicize the expansion of restrooms at the site.

Muslim leaders at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount say the expansion of the restrooms, located 55 yards from the Mughrabi Gate, is designed to desecrate Muslim holy sites.

“The expansion of the restrooms for visitors at the Western Wall is being carried out by The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which Palestinian officials have called ‘the agency of the occupiers,’ even though it is under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office,” read a statement issued Feb. 18 by Rabinowitz’s office.

“It is unfortunate that a minimal action designed to cater to the needs of visitors to the remnant of the Jewish temple is turning into a contentious issue and a pretext for unnecessary tension,” he said.

He called for more education about the importance of the holy site to the Jewish people in order counter the propaganda.